The Hold Steady, Avalon Hollywood, July 30, 2008
Photos and text by Jeff Miller
Though they're less than a decade into their career, the Brooklyn-via-Minnessota five-piece The Hold Steady is already a nostalgia act; in fact, it's arguable that they were a nostalgia act from their very beginning. That's not to say they've already written their "Don't Stop Belivin'." Rather, it's thanks to songwriter Craig Finn's heart-very-very-firmly-on-his-sleeves loud rock tunefulness -- not something you see often in a band with the kind of indie-rock buzz they've had from the very start. But on this, the first tour behind their new album, Stay Positive, it's not just the Springsteen choruses and sing-along "whoa-a-ohs" that hearken back to another time, it's the Hold Steady themselves, who -- in leaving their hooks somewhat behind on the new album -- also leave their fans clamoring for the old stuff.
Finn's as ridiculously fun to watch as ever, moving every part of his lean frame with the kind of loose, nearly effeminate, puppet-like abandon usually reserved for street performers and mimes, his everyman appeal found amid hand claps and lost-lyric shouts, and a striped polo that fits like his mom bought it for him 10 years ago. But the new songs (save the buoyant title track and the roaring "Sequestered In Memphis") don't have the immediate appeal of the best, impeccably dynamic cuts from their breakthrough, Boys and Girls in America, or even 2003's "Almost Killed Me;" it's almost as if for the new songs they squandered choruses in favor of a repetitive chug, not so much bad as it is occasionally dissappointing.
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Still, when they break out the old songs, there's no better live band on the planet: Finn's confidence is only cooled by the rest of his band's obvious love of being on stage, whether it's cartoonish keyboard player Franz Nikolai urging the audience repeatedly to clap along (they needed no coaxing), or guitarist Tad Kubler breaking out a double-neck for a slow song in between high-jump bouts. If they're a nostalgia act, at least they know it: nothing beats the smile on Finn's face as he hears 1,200 people singing the party-hearty lyrics of "Massive Nights" right back to him.